By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On November 18, 2019, in front of a large crowd, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa (70) was sworn in as the eighth Executive President of Sri Lanka during a ceremony held at Ruwanweliseya in Anuradhapura. The Presidential Election was held on November 16 with a voter turnout of 83.72 percent, in as many as 12,845 polling stations set up across the country. According to the results released by the Election Commission (EC) on November 17, Gotabaya received 6,924,255 (52.25 per cent) votes out of the total of 13,387,951 votes polled. New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa (52) received 5,564,239 (41.99 percent) votes. A record 35 candidates were in the fray for the top post, with Gotabaya and Sajith the main contenders. The remaining 33 candidates totalled just 5.76 per cent of the vote.
During the seventh Presidential Election held on January 8, 2015, Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena, leader of the New Democratic Front (NDF), secured 6,217,162 votes (51.28 per cent) against 5,768,090 votes (47.58 per cent) polled by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent President, and candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). A total of 19 candidates were in the fray. But, the election was a direct contest between Sirisena and Rajapaksa from the outset, with the remaining 17 candidates eventually securing a joint total of just 1.14 per cent votes. 12,264,377 (81.52 per cent) out of a total of 15,044,490 registered voters cast their ballot at 12,314 polling stations throughout the country.
Except for two incidents of violence, the election campaign in 2019 was largely peaceful. The first violent incident was recorded on November 6, 2019, in which two persons were injured when Parliamentarian S.B. Dissanayake’s security detail opened fire at a crowd on the roadside at Ginigathhena in the Nuwara Eliya District of Central Province when they allegedly blocked the politician’s convoy. The second incident occurred on November 16, 2019, in which a group of unidentified persons opened fire after pelting stones at two Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) buses which were transporting Muslim voters from Puttalam to Silawathura at Thanthrimale. The buses were first attacked with stones in the Bogoda area in Thanthirimale, Anuradhapura, and then the attackers opened fire. No injuries were reported in the incident.
Commenting on the well-conducted election process, the international election observer groups, European Union – Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) and Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) which monitored the 2019 Presidential Election on November 19 concluded the election process to be largely peaceful with minimal incidence of violence.
Gotabaya swept the poll in the Sinhala majority Districts of the South, while Premadasa garnered most of the votes from the Tamil dominated North and East, and from the Muslim community as well as the tea plantation workers of Indian origin. Gotabaya had promised strong leadership to secure the island of 22 million people, the majority of whom are Sinhalese Buddhists. Millions voted to elect a new President to lead the country out of its deepest economic slump in over 15 years, dragged down by its tourism sector following the Easter Sunday terror attacks that killed 262 people. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings and the spectacular failure of governance at multiple levels, there was a strong push towards re-militarizing Sri Lanka. Gotabaya was able to cash in on people’s security concerns to gain votes.
The mandate is clearly polarised. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former wartime Defence Secretary who oversaw the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) under his brother and then President Mahinda Rajapaksa 10 years ago, was defeated in all of the Northern Province’s five Districts and in the three Districts of the Eastern Province, in the Presidential Election. Moreover, Gotabaya’s choice for the venue for his oath-taking ceremony was viewed by many as one that intended to deliver a direct message to the country’s minorities. Ruwanweliseya, an iconic Buddhist temple located in the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura, was constructed by the warrior king Dutugemunu (161 BCE – 137 BCE), who is said to have united the island by defeating the Tamil prince, Ellalan from the Chola Kingdom. By holding his swearing-in ceremony inside the temple, Rajapaksa also became the first Sri Lankan President-elect to choose a place of religious worship to take the oath of office.
The Gotabaya’s election as the new President marked the return of the powerful Rajapaksa dynasty. He is the second member from the Rajapaksa family to become President. His older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was President from 2005 to 2015. At their peak, the four Rajapaksa brothers were in substantial control of the country: Mahinda was the President, Gotabaya was Defence Secretary, Basil was Economic Development Minister and Chamal was the Speaker of the Parliament.
Repeating history, on November 21, 2019, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Sri Lanka by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Further, on November 22, 2019, the President appointed a 16-member interim Cabinet headed by his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa and allotted major portfolios to his brothers. Mahinda Rajapaksa will now serve as Prime Minister, as well as Defence and Finance Minister. Chamal Rajapaksa will serve as Trade and Food Security Minister. 16 law makers will serve as Ministers in a Caretaker Government until the next General Election in March 2020. Gotabaya also vowed to call a snap general election “at the earliest opportunity” hoping to ride a wave of popularity and secure a majority for his SLPP party in the 225-member Parliament. Currently, the Rajapaksas and their allies have just 96 legislators, making it hard for them to pass any legislation.
There are already concerns in the country among the minority communities about the possibility of the return of iron-fisted rule under the Rajapaksa-duo’s regime. To allay their concerns, however, soon after he was sworn in as President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised, on November 22, 2019, “I knew I would win the presidency with support coming only from the Sinhala majority. I told the minorities to join me. I did not receive their support. But I will make sure that I will be President for everyone.” He also inducted two Tamil law makers in the interim Cabinet in an effort to reach out to the minority community. Muslims make up nearly 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists. About 12 per cent of the population are Hindus, mostly from the ethnic Tamil minority. Some seven per cent of the population is Christian.
On the foreign policy front, there were worries regarding Gotabaya Rajpaksa’s tilt towards China, given Mahinda’s past preferences as well as Gotabaya’s acrimonious relationship with the United States. Sri Lanka’s debt situation would also suggest a greater role for China, which is the island’s biggest investor and creditor. However, talking about his foreign policy, on November 18, 2019, Gotabaya stressed, “We will maintain friendly and cordial relationship with all the nations and we don’t want to be caught between power struggles of international politics among different nations. In maintaining relationships with us, we urge all nations to respect our sovereignty.” Further, on November 19, 2019, Gotabaya thanked India’s Prime Minister Norendra Modi for his good wishes and accepted the invitation for a visit to India. Gotabaya will visit India on November 29.
The Rajapaksa brothers are immensely popular among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese population because of their role in crushing Tamil separatists and ending a 26-year civil war in 2009. Gotabaya and Mahinda are a perfect partnership for a long innings in the local political landscape with their strong credentials on a range of issues from national security to urban regeneration. Evidently, the island nation’s Sinhala majority has responded to the charisma of a ‘strong leader’. With a discernibly polarized mandate, Gotabaya’s commitment to be a leader for all will be severely tested.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management